Thoughts on Into Darkness


If you haven’t seen the film “Star Trek Into Darkness” yet, read no further!  This posting contains spoilers and will ruin key elements of the film if you proceed! 



Into Trekness

st_1I’ve come to believe that there is a new “third rail” in conversations.  You know, those topics that you just avoid like the plague when engaging people in conversation because it’s likely to turn into an argument.

For the longest time, people have always said the two items on that list should be “religion and politics.”  However, it would seem that I could add how much I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” to the list–at least as far as some Trekkies are concerned.

There are definitely two camps: those who like the new films by J.J. Abrams and those who think that the films are tantamount to heresy and are causing Gene Roddenberry to roll over in his grave.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve seen “Into Darkness” in IMAX 3D three times.  My first viewing was in a packed theater for the Fan Sneak Premiere the night before the movie opened in wide release and I had a great time!  I thought the movie was a fun ride that spoke to the heart of “Star Trek.”  It had great allegory, it had character development, it had humor, it had an engaging plot…it wasn’t a perfect film, but that’s not a surprise.  I did have a few problems with it, but overall I thought it was a great follow up to its 2009 predecessor.

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

The new “Star Trek” films are epic and in a way that the first ten movies featuring the TOS and TNG casts just couldn’t be.

For years, “Star Trek” fans bemoaned the fact that the studio wouldn’t give the movies the budget they needed to appeal to a wide audience. This was especially true with the TNG era films, several of which seemed like they would have been better served as two-part episodes rather than feature films.  As a result, the movies started making less money at the box office. “Star Trek: First Contact” was a success, earning twice it’s production budget domestically.  However, “Insurrection” and “Nemesis” didn’t fare nearly as well.  “Insurrection” made $200,000 more than the budget and “Nemesis” didn’t even come close. (It had a budget of $60,000,000 and only made $43,000,000 at U.S. theaters.)

Paramount committed big money to reinvigorating the film franchise, giving 2009’s “Star Trek” twice the budget that “Insurrection” had. They wanted something huge that would make “Star Trek” a tent pole franchise again and they turned to J.J. Abrams to do it.

It seemed like a brilliant idea, at least until J.J. admitted he was more of a “Star Wars” fan growing up and wasn’t into “Star Trek.”  It didn’t matter that writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof were Trek fans–J.J. wasn’t and that was all they needed to hear. Their minds were made up: this film might have the name “Star Trek,” but it “didn’t fit with Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.”  It might as well be called “Star Wars.”

I heard the same criticism about “Into Darkness” before the movie even opened.  Yes, the movie is epic.  Yes, the movie is packed with action.  No, the movie doesn’t have the “submarine style” starship battles that the franchise has been known for in the past.  It also doesn’t have Storm Troopers, Jedi, Sith, or The Force, either.  These films are definitely not Star Wars, but they’re Star Trek updated for a different audience–moviegoers that are used to and more inclined to see big movies with lots of action.

klingonTake the scenes on Qo’noS, the Klingon homeworld. Everything from the ship pursuit to the battle on the ground was treated in a way we’ve never seen before in a Star Trek movie. The Klingons seemed more ominous and dangerous than they have in previous Treks, too.

In “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” they were expendable window dressing to introduce V’Ger. In “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” they were paper tigers–and most people mock them because Christopher Lloyd was totally unbelievable as a warrior.  (It’s hard to be the badass of the galaxy when you sound like Reverend Jim from “Taxi” with a turtle head.)  In “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” they were largely comic relief.  In “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” they were a race with an uncertain future–who seemed to be largely British.  In “Star Trek: Generations,” they were Soran’s taxi.  (Lursa and B’Etor didn’t exactly move the plot along, either.)

The Klingons of “Star Trek Into Darkness” are a people we know we don’t want to go to war with. They are fierce, they are brutal, and they’re definitely an adversary that will provide great conflict in future films if handled correctly.  These are definitely not the Klingons of the TOS era, that’s for sure.  I can’t wait to see them have a more prominent role in a future “Star Trek” movie.

“From Hell’s Heart, I Stab at Thee”

639px-Khan_artWhen the first rumors came out that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan Noonien Singh, I was beside myself.  Cumberbatch is an amazing actor, but…well…he’s a pasty white Englishman.  (Sorry, Benedict…no offense intended.)  He’s not a Sikh from Northern India, like Khan is supposed to be.  At least, that was the conclusion that Lt. Marla McGivers came to as the Historian assigned to the U.S.S. Enterprise in the original “Star Trek” series.

At that point, I considered the original casting of the great Ricardo Montalban as Khan in the 60’s.  They hired a Mexican actor to play an Indian character and made his complexion seem darker with make-up.  In reality, Montalban didn’t fit the ethnicity of Khan any better than Benedict Cumberbatch does today, but he gave a performance that Star Trek fans almost unanimously agree is nothing short of incredible.

Montalban and Cumberbatch both give exceptional performances as Khan Noonien Singh, but it took seeing “Star Trek Into Darkness” for Cumberbatch to win me over.  His Khan has a little more depth than just being a genetically altered super human bent on world domination.  His Khan has emotion beyond that of vengeance and his motivation is more than that of despot or dictator.  It was rough for me to admit intially, but Benedict Cumberbatch is a great Khan, even if he doesn’t look the part at all.

My other significant problem with the Khan story line is that, presumably, they put these 72 cryotubes in storage on the very planet Khan was trying to take over in the 1990’s: Earth.  They lock him away like the Ark of the Covenant and close the door.  Brilliant.  Yeah, like he’s not going to accidentally get thawed some day and turn up for a sequel.

“The Needs of the Many…”

From the moment that Spock uttered those words in the volcano on Nibiru, you knew that something epic was going to happen at the end of this film.

In 1982, word got out that Spock was going to die at the end of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” so they added a scene where his character dies a fake death during a Bridge simulation.  It served as a harbinger of what would happen later in the film, but it also served to diffuse the rumor that had spread by faking out the audience.  It was masterful.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” was taking on Khan and taking on an epic story, so more than likely meant that someone had to die.  Instead of following the same ground that “The Wrath of Khan” did, they juxtaposed the final act of the film.  The Enterprise was put in peril with the death of her crew all but certain were it not by a final, selfless act by…

star-trek-into-darkness-2James T. Kirk.

The Kirk death scene was practically a mirror of Spock’s death scene thirty-one years earlier. It used some of the same dialogue, but the outcome was still the same: the Warp Drive was fixed, a major character died behind a glass wall, and Khan was defeated.

The critique I read from many Trekkies was that the scene was unoriginal and the writing was lazy–that the writers had ripped off Trek’s best movie.

Personally, I thought that it was a gracious nod to the best film in “Star Trek” history.  I don’t think that’s lazy story telling at all–it’s a plot twist of the story from the “prime timeline.”  It created a story that the audience would feel engaged in while giving “Star Trek’s” biggest fans something familiar.  The critique that it’s lazy just doesn’t ring true.

The Great Bird of the Galaxy

geneTMPI think the critiques I hear the most about “Star Trek Into Darkness”–and the one that I have the most difficult time understanding–is either that “it isn’t Roddenberry’s vision,” “it isn’t recognizable as Star Trek,” or that “Gene would hate it.”

I think “Into Darkness” is perfectly recognizable as “Star Trek.” Aside from the obvious things like the characters, Starfleet, and the Enterprise, it has elements that have always been part of Trek.  It’s got allegory that makes clear and definitive statements–especially on a post-9/11 world and the pitfalls of sacrificing your core beliefs for vengeance.

It’s got relationships that resonate with the audience.  Kirk and Spock, Spock and McCoy, Uhura and Spock, Kirk and Khan, Pike and Kirk…each of the interactions has a purpose and moves the characters through their development in the story and in the Star Trek universe as a whole.

It’s got humorous moments that highlight a compelling story line as “Star Trek” has always had–and there are far too many of those to mention, for sure.  It’s definitely Trek, even if it is an alternate timeline and on a bigger scale.

Is “Into Darkness” compliant with “Roddenberry’s vision?”  Well…yes and no…but there’s a lot of Star Trek that didn’t always comply with Gene’s idea.

His original pilot, “The Cage,” was criticized by NBC for being “too cerebral,” so they had him do another pilot.  (Read: one that would get people to watch.)  The original “Star Trek” series wasn’t entirely Gene’s vision, as good as it was.  He had several key contributors like Bob Justman and Gene Coon, among others.  Some of the most loved and respected episodes of the series weren’t written by Roddenberry.  The universe is absolutely his creation, but credit belongs to many creative people for creating timeless stories.

It’s almost a similar story with the films, in a sense.  Roddenberry writes a script for the first feature film called “The God Thing” which eventually becomes “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”  I remember going to see TMP in 1979 with my older brother.  We both fell asleep.  After that, Gene’s involvement with the films was limited to “Executive Consultant” status with little to no active participation.

Please don’t misunderstand–I’m not saying that Gene Roddenberry had nothing to do with “Star Trek’s” success and I’m not saying that the things he wrote were bad.  Rather, I am saying that the majority of “Star Trek” films didn’t fit with Gene’s “vision” of “Star Trek”–especially in Treks II through VI, where Starfleet is clearly a more military-type organization and is less about exploration.

I got to meet Gene Roddenberry in 1983.  He gave a lecture at Laconia High School in Laconia, New Hampshire as part of a series funded by The Putnam Fund.  It was in between Treks II and III and he talked about “Star Trek” and it’s impact on society.  He was also very positive and upbeat about the last “Star Trek” movie and looked forward to the upcoming one–neither of which he wrote or had significant involvement with.

I honestly don’t believe that Gene would have hated this version of “Star Trek.”  He probably would have done some things very differently, no doubt, but I think that Gene understood that “Star Trek” would evolve over time. His vision of the future was one of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, and I think that must also be true of the method in which those stories are told.

geneTNGThat said, I also have to believe that Gene also knew that this all meant more “Star Trek,” and that manifested itself in a way in 1987 that many Trekkies certainly didn’t like.

I remember when I heard that Gene was working on a new “Star Trek” series, and that it wouldn’t include the original cast. I was beside myself.  I thought it could never work, and I wasn’t alone.  Trekkies everywhere were skeptical at the notion and didn’t want a new series with an unknown crew to dilute the “Star Trek” franchise.

It was a time where “Star Trek” had just had it’s most successful feature film to date: “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”  It’s popularity was at an all-time high.  Fans wanted to see a new series with Kirk, Spock, and the entire crew–but instead, Paramount decided to move forward with “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

It wasn’t great at first, but eventually TNG would become as beloved as the series that inspired it.  In hindsight, all of those who hated the notion were wrong, including me.  Gene’s participation was greatly reduced after the first season, but eventually TNG would find it’s way.

Ultimately, Gene Roddenberry hoped that “Star Trek” would live on and he knew it would someday take on a life of its own.

“I would hope there are bright young people, growing up all the time, who will bring to [Star Trek] levels and areas that were beyond me, and I don’t feel jealous about that at all. […] It’ll go on, without any of us, and get better and better and better, because that’s the… that really is the human condition. It’s to improve and improve.” – Gene Roddenberry, The Star Trek Saga: From One Generation to the Next, 1988.

“There’s a good chance that when I’m gone, others will come along and do so well that people will say, ‘Oh, that Roddenberry. He was never this good.’ But I will be pleased with that statement.” – Gene Roddenberry, Los Angeles Times TV Times, article “Star Trek’s New Frontier”, 1993.

Roddenberry intended for “Star Trek” to evolve as society evolved.   That was his vision of “Star Trek.”

The Final Frontier

No franchise that has lasted half a century is the same as it was when it started.  James Bond…Batman…Superman…The Lone Ranger…all have evolved over time and had countless versions of their stories told.  Not all have matched and, hell, not all have even made sense!  Yet, the characters and the stories are loved by generations of fans.  Those franchises may not have always made the best decision, but they’ve changed and thrived over time.

“Star Trek” is remarkable and the stories that have been brought to life through these characters have resonated with all of us in different ways.  Television episodes, novels, cartoons, comic books, films, websites, fan films…”Star Trek” has transcended them all.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” isn’t a perfect film.  It does have some plot holes and, at times, I do feel like the pace is a little too relentless and action packed.  Besides…a personal transwarp beaming device?  (Why the heck didn’t Spock have that in the volcano on Nibiru?)  Earth has no defenses against enemy vessels other than starships?  The U.S.S. Vengeance made it to where the Enterprise was (from Venus) before any Klingon forces from the planet below did?

Plot holes aside, it’s an entertaining movie and a fun ride that guarantees one thing: more “Star Trek” in the future.  (Besides, if the legendary Leonard Nimoy can be accepting and supportive of the new films, then can’t we all on some level?)

Trek fans are some of the greatest and nicest people on the planet and, while this issue divides some of us, I certainly can’t begrudge anyone who feels differently than I do.  We’re all wanting the best for the franchise we’ve loved for years.

As a child, my hero was Captain Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise was my boyhood ship of dreams.  I am glad that there are new adventures to inspire another new generation of fans and to propel our imaginations to strange new worlds.  Whether on the small screen or the big screen, they all live up to the name “Star Trek” in some way…and I think we all win when that happens.